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Pretty much everyone in the tech industry has done this at least once with varying degrees of success. It is almost a rite of passage to work in tech and is a great way get noticed by innovative companies. Many may have hated it immediately, but for some it became their full-time profession. And we are not talking about trying to be an Instagram celebrity or building the next Flappy Bird. In this case, it is all about freelance writing.
Right now we are in a freelancing boom that many experts believe will continue. With a staggering 53 million Americans that would be categorized as freelancers and almost 30 percent of those doing it in tandem with their main profession. Although there are no concrete numbers on how many are actually freelance writers, the estimates are pretty high. A simple search on either UpWork, Scriptd or Fiverr brings up hundreds of thousands of freelance writers. UpWork boasts 600k+ writers available for hire! But can you survive as a full-time freelance writer in 2016?
In addition to earning some extra cash, freelance writing is a perfect place to learn more about your industry. Honestly, it is where I got my start in tech. I always knew I wanted to work in tech, and with my writing experience it was a perfect match. Simply by writing about new startups for the first year after graduation, I was put in contact with thousands of startups and founders. It also gave me the chance to expand my skills and portfolio in subjects that I was passionate about.
One of the things that stuck with me was how wildly the pay varied between publications. Some of the most well know publications would pay in exposure, hoping to find new and eager writers like myself. But some of the other small or niche sites and publications would pay extremely well. Back when I was a new writer and even now, it makes no sense to me!
That is why for some time I have been wanting to investigate this phenomenon further. But because publications do not post their pay scales publicly, I was at a loss. Until I stumbled upon Who Pays Writers in a very helpful article. According to their site:
Who Pays Writers is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of which publications pay freelance writers—and how much. This list is primarily concerned with writing for publications; we don’t collect information about copywriting, advertising, corporate, or sponsored-content assignments.
And after finding this goldmine of data that outlined some interesting trends, I knew we had to dig deeper. So I did and got lost in it like the Forbidden Forest. To make this article a little easier to follow, I have decided to break it into two parts: the first part will strictly report on our findings after looking at the Who Pays Writers data; the second part will be all about the implications of those findings and bring in some outside data on writers across the country. But both will be used to answer the ultimate question: Can you survive as a full-time freelance writer in 2016?
PART 1: Who pays writers?
As stated above, Who Pays Writers (WPW) is a fantastic resource full of crowdsourced pay rates and other important metrics. Writers have recorded their experiences with many publications including The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, XOJane, and more. At last count, there were over 500 publications included in their database with even more entries about working with them. The typical WPW entry can be seen below:
The entries are broken down by “pay per word”, “approximate word count”, “type of article”, “workload and type of relationship” with the publications. They also include “time to be paid” and “comments”, but not all of the entries had those, so they were left out of our data. If you are interested, all of our data can be seen here.
For our data set, I collected an unintentionally tidy number of 520 entries across all 500+ publications between the years 2014-2016. The entries from previous years were excluded because most of them were not complete. Now let’s get into the data!
Most writers make less than $0.25 a word
Since this entire study started with the desire to see how freelance writers are paid, we should probably start there. I broke this down into two distinct categories to make sure the analysis was thorough. They both show almost the same thing, but it makes it easier to visualize later on. Firs,t we looked at strictly the Pay Per Word of each article but we also calculated at the Total Pay of each article. Simply put writing 1000 words at $0.02 a word and 100 words at $0.20 a word give you the same total pay. But the paths to that pay are completely different.
Since everything in this world is distilled down to averages we found that the average Pay Per Word was about $0.30. That may sound like a lot or like nothing depending on how seasoned you are as a freelancer. And actually that is a pretty high average with, 72% of the writers making less than the average. The top heaviness of the data can be seen clearly:
Because the data was a little top heavy we decided to break it down a little further. This way we will not be making inaccurate conclusions later on. A more accurate of breakdown of Pay Per Word can be seen below. From these findings we could conclude that the majority of freelance writers make around $0.17 a word, or almost half of the average found above.
The top 10 percent of writers have it extremely well, making more than four times the average pay of $.30 per word. But as we move towards the Bottom 50% of writers, it becomes a little more disheartening, with the top half of the sample of writers making eight times more per word than the bottom half.
To triple-check our data we even analyzed the Pay Per Word data in an extremely elementary way: simply counting the number of articles that fell in our carefully selected ranges. That method yielded very similar findings, with the majority of writers making less than $0.25 per word. And more writers were not being paid for their work (21 people) compared to those making more than $1.50 a word (20 people).
Just like many other professions, to really make a great living you have to be at the top. That belief is even more prevalent and obvious in freelance writing. There are a few out there can afford to make freelancing their sole source of income, but again, they are the only really the top 10 percent of writers. But honestly, most will not make enough for it to be a longtime legitimate career choice. But we will get deeper into that in the second part of this article.
80 percent of writers will make less than $500 an article
Now on to the Pay Per Article data, which paints a similar picture of a struggling freelance writer. We will start with averages: the average pay per article being about $380. And again, this was extremely top-heavy, over 76 percent of writers making less than the average. It may look very similar to the Pay Per Word graph, but the point at which payments drop below the average happens a bit sooner.
Just like with Pay Per Word data, we broke the Pay Per Article data into manageable segments. It was quickly apparent that it was even more top heavy than we expected, with the top one percent making more than double per article compared to the top five percent. This shows that there is some income inequality even at the top!
In this case, the top 10 percent earned five times more per article than the sample average and three times more than even the top 50 percent of writers–although, in this case, the difference between the top and bottom 50 percent was a little closer. The top half of writers made a bit over three times more per article than the bottom half. And finally, the top 10 percent of writers made almost a 160 times more than the bottom 10 percent and 24 times more than the bottom 50 percent of writers.
To further show that most of the freelance money stays with the top writers, we broke it down even further. In this case, a majority of the writers do not make more than $250 per article and most make less than a $100. Those making under $250 per article make up 62 percent of the sample, and those making less than $500 make up over 83 percent.
This is yet another finding that shows a majority of the freelance writing money is made by the few. At the top, there were 43 writers that made more than $1000 per article and the other 477 making under $1,000. When the total pay for both groups was added up it was a lot closer than you would think.
There is less than a $10k difference between the groups, with the top making $94k in total and the rest making just over $103k. If that does not discourage you from becoming a full time freelance writer, I am not sure what will.
Writing more words does not guarantee higher pay per article
From what we found directly above, writing longer articles should make more money. But in some cases, that is not entirely true. We found that the average length was a reasonable 1,400 words. If you are having trouble visualizing that, it is about the length of this article up until this section. In fact, 54 percent of articles are less than 1,400 words long, so the average is very true to the sample.
From there we tried to determine the perfect article length to maximize payment. But instead of finding that more words led to higher pay, we saw something interesting: those who wrote the longest articles, or more than 7k words, actually earned less per article than some of the others. We were blown away to find that writing 4.5k more per article words only led to a $90 higher payment! This definitely went against what most people would expect, especially those used to working hourly.
As you can see in the graph above, the optimal range to maximize payment was between 5k and 7k words per article. Even writing between 2.5k and 5k words gave a higher average payout than 7k+! If you are looking to maximize pay, we would recommend writing anywhere between 2.5k and 7k words, as long as it is interesting. If you are looking to keep the word count low but still make more than the average $380 per article, we would recommend shooting for a more reasonable 1k to 2.5k words per article.
It is important to remember these findings should only be used as a guide. Do not expect to write 5k+ words and make almost a grand off just one article. We have seen that many new and experienced writers still do not know how to price their word. This will hopefully curb some of that ambiguity and confusion.
But More Effort Expended On Articles Could Help
In addition to payment and word count, the most interesting things we saw included on Who Pays Writers was amount of effort expended. Effort was broken down into three distinct categories: Little, Medium and Heavy. Like all the other variables this was self reported by the writers and this gave us some concern.
In the beginning we worried that the other variables may have caused a misrepresentation of the results. For example someone who wrote a 5k+ word article with little research could see that as a Heavy effort. And someone who wrote a 1k word article that was intensely researched could also report Heavy effort. In the eyes of the publications, the 5k article took more time and therefore should be paid more.
But those fears we quelled by comparing both the increase in pay and the increase in word count for each effort level. As the effort increased, the Average Pay also increased at a very steady rate of 68 percent and 87 percent for Little to Medium and Medium to Heavy, respectively. There was, however, a disparity between the same range for Average Length only increasing 17 percent from Little to Medium but 84 percent from Medium to Heavy. We believe the small increase between Little and Medium effort was caused by people selecting Medium out of habit. As you can see in the pie chart above, more than half of the sample selected a Medium level of effort. Not many people want to admit that they put little or no effort into a project or article.
Both of those measures shows in their own way that the more effort expended, the higher your pay should be. It also shows that it takes not only skill to be a great freelancer, but also good old-fashioned effort. That could be in researching and running down leads, or just putting a great deal of effort into the supporting images or graphics. All of these components matter and come together to form an interesting, shareable and actionable article.
Finally, as a thought experiment, we decided to arbitrarily assign hours expended to the different levels of effort. They were estimated and assigned as 10, 15 and 20 hours for each level, respectively. Based on that established criteria, we found that putting a Heavy level of work into an article was still the most fruitful, earning almost $38 per hour. And you could work for almost 10 more hours on a Heavy effort level article before it became more lucrative to give Little and Medium effort. Plus an article with Little effort would have to drop down to only six hours spent on an article to be worth it in the long run over a Heavy article. Again, this is just a thought experiment, but it could be useful when planning out an article or project!
Old school publications pay best, but many still don’t pay at all
Picking the right publication to pitch your next idea to is tough. You want to make sure you will be fairly treated and actually paid for your work! Based on personal experiences, that is not guaranteed at every publication. And although we can’t determine based on our data how you will be treated, we can give each writer a guide on which publications actually pay extremely well. Oh, and we made sure to include those who paid the worst, so you can avoid them from the beginning. Unless it is not about the money for you!
In fact, the top paying per word publications were consistently publications that have a print and online presence. In fact, all of the top 20 pay per word publications, and nearly all the top 50 pay per word publications have a physical and online presence. The only example of an online exclusive publication in that group was Yahoo!.
My theory is that the most of the best paying publications were established before internet journalism took off, so they have the money to pay contributors. They have the network or connections to make sure they get the best freelance writers. It also could be that those publications are run as a full time,growing businesses and in contrast some of the others are just side projects for a group of enthusiastic people.
The publications with the best payment per word ranged from $1.50 per word at Shape to $2.31 per word at Wired. At the lowest point, that group of publications still paid five times more per word than the average. To put that into perspective, the pay per article ranged from $200 for an extremely short article to $8,000 for the top paid article in this group from above.
That top paying publication last year was Popular Science. The average pay per article was a high $2,500 per article (six times more than the average pay per article from our sample). But do not expect to hit this high a pay when you’re starting out. Just like any other profession, it takes a few years to move up in pay.
Now on to the worst paying per word publications. Sorry, but it had to be done! In contrast to the high paying publications, 16 out of the bottom 20 lowest paying per word were web-only publications. Of those publications, the sites that are magazines or newspapers have been around for only a handful of years. Note: This count does not include the 20 plus publications that do not pay their contributors, which we highlighted in yellow above. But the non-paying publications follow the same trends as the low paying publications.
The lowest paying per word publications ranged from just $0.01 to $0.02 per word (33 times lower than the sample average). The average from this group for pay per article was also incredibly low. Coming in at $23 per article (16 times lower than the average from our sample). And in case you are curious, there were over 150 entries with publications paying less than $0.05 a word.
Staying friendly with editors is key
As many full-time freelancers could probably attest to, your network should be made up of as many editors as possible. Editors are the gatekeepers to the big publications and you should be in contact with them from day one. You want to be the person they email when a big opportunity comes up or they need a last minute article completed. It may sound a little dramatic but they are the people that could play the biggest role in your success or failure. There are a few editors that helped me more than they will ever know.
This was enforced by the Relationship portion of each entry on Who Pays Writers. Those fostering a relationship with a publication had the highest on average pay per article by far. As you can see below, those who have an ongoing relationship with an editor, or were assigned an article by an editor, earned the highest pay.
Both types of relationships received double the pay per article than the cold pitches. Although cold pitches were the most popular type of relationship, they were not the most fruitful. And this was fully expected, especially because editors are berated daily with tons of pitches in their inbox. And even though you might have the most interesting pitch, they might want to go with something safe. It’s not fair but it happens, and I have done taken the safe pitch a few times.
In fact, when we looked at the top 50 publications in pay per word only six were facilitated through a cold pitch. A majority were written based on an ongoing relationship or assigned by an editor. But as you move towards the bottom of the pay per word scale the frequency of cold pitches and submissions increases dramatically.
There also was a casual trend we spotted while putting together this section. If you think about each relationship as different degrees of separation with an editor it follows a distinct pattern. For example, assignments would be the closest relationship and leads to the highest pay per article. Then it goes down the line and as the relationship becomes less familiar the pay decreases. It finally ends with a cold pitch receiving the lowest pay per article. And this trend confirms our belief that editors should be your best friends!
PART 2: The implications
Now that we have sifted through all the data presented on Who Pays Writers, we must look at the implications. And if you have read everything up until this point, you’ll know they are not great. We already found that the majority of writers will make under $0.25 per word and only around $250 total per article. But what does that mean to the overall integrity and growth potential of the industry? And what does it take for someone to truly get by as a full-time freelance writer?
How much must you write to survive in each major city?
We thought it would be interesting to look at what it would take to live in different cities as a freelance writer. This is extremely important for writers looking to move to a new city, or for those looking to become a full-time freelancer. Because of that, we selected the cities based on how writer and creative-friendly they are! This includes the trendy cities like New York and San Francisco but also the cost friendly cities like Kansas City and Portland.
For this analysis, we were torn between using the cost of living, per capita income and income per household. Each had their strengths, but cost of living won out in the end because of its flexibility. For those not familiar with cost of living, it is the estimate of the cost of basic living expenses like food, housing and a few other necessities in a certain city.
It is usually used only to compare a handful cities based on a ratio, but we expanded it to compare almost 40 different cities! In this case, we also use the publishing mecca known as New York City as the original city, so each city is more or less expensive when compared to NYC. We wanted to compare cost of living directly to pay per word so that ratio must be converted into a yearly salary.
This salary was set at $50k in NYC based a number of different factors, including the average salary of freelance writers and salary of other related professions. Because this is a ratio, and NYC is one of the most expensive cities to live in, most cities had a salary estimate below $40k. In my hometown of Kansas City, the salary used for comparison was a bit over half NYC at $33k.
The results can be seen at the top of this post, with the median required word count already highlighted at $0.18 per word. Be sure to check out how the totals change when you select the different publication levels. They are broken down succinctly into the average pay per word of each of four levels of publications, from top to bottom. The results probably will change your mind on moving to a trendy city, unless you are writing for the top 25% of publications. Also, as a fun and tangible exercise, we compared the total number of words required to make a reasonable wage the word count a classic book of the same length!
Now we are not going to go over the entire graphic but still would like to highlight some interesting findings. Like that no matter where you like the middle 50% of writers will need to publish about 20k words a month or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Plus the bottom 25% have to publish over 100k words or Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King each month to live in most cities! And finally, almost some good news, if you split your time between the top 75% of publications you will never have to publish around 15k words a month.
Again this was not done to discourage the kindred spirits from taking flight to a new city. It was more to show that living comfortably in one city takes a lot more work that you may think. But if living comfortably is not that important, the next few sections are perfect for you!
Publish 4000+ words a month just to meet minimum wage
It’s fitting to start with a look at minimum wage too. Because based on some of the earlier data, a lot of writers may not be earning even that per hour. For those who have not been keeping up with recent legislation, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Some states like California and Oregon have raised minimum wage to over $9 per hour as well. Consequently, writers will have to work even harder to meet that baseline pay, with some cities implementing a $15 minimum wage in the near future.
Although we can’t assign a hard pay per hour to each article, we can analyze the Pay Per Word data and work backward. As we found above, the average pay per word was $0.30, but it skewed to the high side. To counteract this skew, we looked at all the pay sectors in the graph below. It should be noted we have left out the Bottom 10% because it returned an absurd number of over 100k words per month.
To make just the minimum wage, approximately $1,230 per month, an average writer needs to publish almost exactly 4,100 words per month. Again, this is not just writing 4,100 words; those words have to be published and the writer actually has to be paid for this effort. And for the Middle 50 percent of writers, that number jumps up to almost 7,300 words that must be published per month. We can also break it down based on an article count as well, which translates to roughly three 1,400 word articles per month for the average writer.
Those publishing estimates may not seem like much but it is still a ton of work just to make the minimum wage each month. According to a study by Contently, almost 40 percent of their freelance sample made less than $10k last year. And even worse, 23 percent of full time freelancers made less than $10k in the same time span.
The minimum wage gives employees an income of about $15k per year, give or take a few thousand dollars depending on the state. But if those findings from Contently correctly represent freelance writers, about one in four freelance writers earned less than minimum wage last year. Contently’s findings on the medium income for freelance writers put it firmly between 10k and 20k for all freelancers. This gives more credence to our belief that a large chunk of freelance writers made less than minimum wage for their efforts. To be honest, those are not promising statistics if you are looking to become a freelance writer… and in the next section things will look even worse.
Publish 15000+ words a month just to earn an average wage
After scouring the web for a consistent figure for the average hourly wage of a freelance writer, we gave up. It varied from $20 to $30 per hour on average but there was no exact number to be found. But even at the lowest estimate, it is still almost three times higher than minimum wage, which quickly indicated that to thrive as a freelance writer you must write almost a novel’s worth of content each month!
To make our analysis more accurate we used four different wages to delineate pay per hour for freelancers. Those wages were $15, $20, $25 and $30 per hour, as you can see in the graph below. Those hourly rates give a writer a monthly salary of $2550, $3400, $4250, and $5100, respectively. By breaking it down we hoped to include most, if not all, freelancers’ pay brackets in our estimate.
For the top writers, this means publishing a modest 3k to 6k words per month. In fact, for the top 50 percent of writers, the word count required for each month does not exceed 10k words, at any wage. Those are all very reachable goals for a driven, full-time writer. That only requires about seven or eight 1,400-word articles a month–at the most. Or two really long articles, like this one!
For an average writer that makes $0.30 a word, the requirements are still not that steep. But again, that average is a little top heavy, just like any other estimate on wages. For those average writers, they would need to publish between 8k and 15k words per month. Or at the maximum, twelve of the 1,400 word articles a month. Again this is a very reasonable goal for a driven writer.
The required word count does not start getting out of hand until we look at the middle 50 percent and bottom 50 percent. For the middle 50 percent of writers, they would need to publish between 15k and 30k words a month to earn the average wage. Or between 1k and 2k words published per day. We are guessing this is where a majority of the writers are concentrated which makes the number even more concerning.
If you are having trouble estimating how much writing 30k words is, it is half of an average-length novel each month. Some people spend an entire year to publish one novel, and at this rate you would have to write six of them! Even if you only wanted to earn $15 per hour, that is three novels worth of words published each year!
As we look at publishing requirements for the Bottom 50% of writers, it almost seems to not be physically possible. With their average payment of only $0.07 per word, the requirement is pushed to between 35k and 75k words per month. That means you would have to publish between 1.2k and 6k words each day to maintain an average wage–or between 25 and 50 articles averaging 1400 words each month, depending on the pay scale you are looking for.
Like we said in the comparison above, that would be like publishing almost a novel EVERY MONTH! Surely, if you are that driven to write, we are guessing your efforts can be used somewhere else. Such as a content editor and marketing professional, just like I did!
Let it be known that it was not my intention to paint such a depressing picture about the state of freelance writing. And certainly not to discourage any bright-eyed writers from trying to strike it out on their own. Just like any other profession, there will be writers that have figured out the system and are making great money. But the data from Who Pays Writers and the rest does not lie, especially when it comes from the mouth of other writers.
I think there has been a devaluation of freelance writers in recent years, mainly in the tech world. Designers and developers are seen as more glamorous positions and the writing gets outsourced to freelancers. And not to the best writers; sadly in my experience, it’s the cheapest ones who get the assignments. In turn this lowers the wages for ALL freelance writers and makes businesses not want to pay the rates for better writers–lowering payments to the point that they are below the minimum wage per hour, as we found above.
It is an ugly cycle that needs to be broken. And you can break it with this data.
We hope that the data we collected from Who Pays Writers can be used to empower you on your journey. Things may not change today or next week but they still can! Your writing has value and it is time for publications to see that. Use it set fair payment when you are just starting out, or to negotiate a better rate in your current situation. This way, we can break this cycle and make the freelance writing space better for the next generation. Because I know we don’t want to discourage the next Hemingway from picking up a pen.